Crossroad: A Short Story
Even the windows shook when the lightning burst overhead. Our front room lit like a Polaroid time and again as light flashed through blinds I hadn’t closed. Rain, endless, came in a deluge. I looked up from the armchair again. My worrying at the clock wouldn’t get Dad home any sooner, so I went back to the same book page I kept rereading. Then I heard him coming up the stairs outside.
If you can look ashen in a downpour, he did. Normally, when he’d get off from the swing shift, we’d have a midnight snack after his genial, “Hi there! Look what I got!” Tonight he had
nothing but years added to his face. He sat down silently, exhausted.
“Everything OK?” I asked.
“No.” Then he told this story, which I remember to this day.
“I was driving home and took the back road shortcut through the old neighborhood. Rain was coming so bad I had to pull over to the curb every block, then every couple hundred feet or so. So I was going down Beacon and came to one of the cross streets. Under a street lamp, I saw what could only be an old lady. It had to be an old lady because she seemed to be uselessly holding a purse over her head against the sheets of rain. Like that was doing any good. She was drenched. So I pull over and lean to roll down the window. ‘Are OK?’ I asked. She said yeah, she was waiting for a bus. ‘A bus? It’s eleven o’clock at night. You live around here? Where do you live?’
‘I’m on my way home.’
‘Well, why don’t you hop in, I’ll drive you. I don’t even know if buses run this late.’
“She got in and pulled the door behind her. She wore an old-fashioned dress, and her blondish, I guess, hair was plastered to her head. She had on what we once called nun shoes. She put her purse down between us. I started up again, and pulled really slow across the street after the stop sign. Get this. Two strange kids were playing what looked like dice against the brick wall around the corner from where she’d stood. Almost pitch-black where they were. I don’t see how they saw anything. One had a black hoodie on, and the other had a white team jacket pulled up over his head like a raincoat or something. They were soaked through, too, it looked like. Couldn’t see their faces, but they kept rolling dice under a metal awning that stuck out a little from the bricks. I remember that awning because it rattled like a machine gun, there was so much rain.
“We drove really slow down the block, with me being careful at each intersection. There were hardly any street lamps. I don’t ever remember a bus going down that street, do you?”
I didn’t answer, and he went on.
“We got to a second, then third block down Beacon. Not a soul in sight. My windshield wipers were hardly of any use. I never went so slow in my life, while she sat there dripping, not saying a word. The old brick houses passed like black tombstones, with giant lightning bolts flashing all around and driving rain. There wasn’t a light in any of them. Why would
there be, with normal people in bed? When we were pulling up to the intersection at West Florissant, I asked her, ‘So which way home? Left or right?’ Ahead of us was the big Bellefontaine cemetery. You ain’t going to believe what happened next, son.
“She turns on me with this fire in her eyes and screams, ‘Let me out of here! I want to go back!’
‘Back where? Where do you live?’
‘Let me out! Let me out! I want to go back to the bus stop!’
“I can’t let you out now. You’ll get hurt out there in this downpour. At least wait till it lets up.”
‘The bus stop! Let me out of here now!’
‘Will you at least take my umbrella? It’s dangerous out there, lady! ‘
“Then she says, ‘Get me out of here now or I’ll kill myself again!’
“Well, that was it. Lady’s crazy. I stopped the car and she jumps out like a snake’s after her.
“‘Take this,’ I hollered, and threw my umbrella out the window after her. She turns around, picked it up, and marched back in the direction we came. Last I saw she disappeared into the night and rain.”
“Lady’s crazy,” I agreed. “Should we call the cops?”
“Yeah, if you think it would do any good.”
Only years later did I remember my dad’s strange encounter. My wife, our boys, and I lived in Germany with the Army. We were at a cultural awareness day at the boys’ school and the subject of ancient folk tales came up. A German teacher said, “One traditional story we tell is of the annual reappearance of a suicide at a crossroads near their place of death. If they speak, it is only about going home. You see, long ago people believed a suicide would go to Heaven only in special circumstances. Otherwise, they went to Hell. Until it was decided, they would wander the earth, ever at a crossroads, seeking a way home. Where they would finally go was decided by two ghoulish figures, one white, one black, playing dice for the suicide’s soul.”